The 14th of July saw the launch of Peter Byrne’s exhibition and book launch ‘This Land: Cowboys and the Landscape of the American West’ in our event space.
We took the opportunity to hunker down with the York-based photographer to ask him a few questions about his brilliant documentary project - here's what we found out.
First off Peter, and you'll have been asked before, but what was the appeal of the American cowboy for you? Can you tell us a bit about how the project came together?
I guess I come from a generation where cowboys played a massive part of growing up. In movies, books and comics the cowboy infiltrated the lives of many, and was a fascinating character who fed the imagination of a young mind looking for danger and adventure. I was intrigued by the lifestyle and the nomadic way they lived their lives. But I was also struck by the incredible landscape that this wonderful life was played out in; the great open plains, the mountains, the sun scorched earth and the big skies. This land always fascinated me, and whilst the life of the cowboy has changed dramatically over the years, in some way the land they work on is the one element which has remained constant.
My interest in this lifestyle and adventure has always stayed with me, but it wasn’t until I met some cowboys at a ranch rodeo whilst on a road trip in Oklahoma that I realised I wanted to look further into the life of the cowboy and especially their relationship with the land they work on.
How did you plan the trip, how did you fund and support yourself?
The trip was essentially self-funded, although I did receive an Arts Council grant on my return, which paid for the cost of film processing and printing. Once I was there it didn’t actually cost a great deal to live. I was usually fed by my cowboy hosts so most of my costs went into paying for petrol and the upkeep of my campervan. My van, (a 1970 VW T2) was bought when I arrived and eventually sold just before I left.
Before I arrived in the US I contacted about a dozen or so ranchers and made arrangements to visit them. I was very surprised as to how forthcoming the ranch owners were, and most were more than happy for me to visit. I'd stay in my camper on each ranch for anywhere between a couple of days and a few weeks, depending on what work was taking place. It was important for me to see a variety of work throughout the whole year and in different seasons, so getting the right information regarding working patterns was crucial. Luckily cowboys and ranchers belong to a tight knit community - they tend to know what's happening in neighbouring ranches and so armed with a couple of contact names and phone numbers it was no trouble finding the next ranch to visit. Ranches can vary in size from a small family run set-up of 80 acres to a massive 900,000 acres and holding 60,000 cattle. Most are privately owned but fall under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management, a government agency, tasked to ensure the land is not over-grazed and is used properly. During my trip I visited 45 ranches in 12 States.
Your project seems to sit firmly in the documentary tradition with your shot selection combining both intimate portraiture and huge landscapes. How did you plan which photos to take and how did you decide which ones were finally selected?
I wanted to experience both the working life of cowboys but more importantly, their relationship with the land they worked on. I was especially interested in how their work changed and adapted to the different land they had to work on and how in different parts of the country, where the weather differs so much, how this affects the daily routine. I also wanted to look at how they saw the land, how it affected them on a day-to-day basis in different conditions and how the landscape altered their mindset during different conditions. It was important to try and relate to this relationship and try to capture a feeling or attitude, which I thought they were experiencing.
You mentioned that this series was entirely shot on film, why did you choose this route and how did this affect how you worked?
There were several reasons why I chose film, primarily it’s because I think it more accurately represents what I see better than digital does. Secondly though, I also wanted to step back a little and be more considered about what I photographed. The beauty of film is that by its nature you cannot blast through 100 shots in a minute and hope you have a good shot. Film requires you to hold back, consider, and think about the picture you’re about to take. It’s a kinder more peaceful medium, less aggressive.
The project was completed sometime ago, but your photobook has been published this year - why choose to publish now? How did it make you feel to see your work in print for the first time?
When I first completed the project I made a few attempts to sell the idea to mainstream book publishers, but when the rejection letters started piling up I guess I put it on the back burner for a while. As a body of work it’s been featured in some great magazines, both on-line and in print but never as a book. However, during the last few years there’s been a fantastic boom in the self-publishing scene and photographers and artists are producing some amazing bodies of work which are being published relatively cheaply, and because of the internet and social media they are finding a broad and receptive audience. The benefits of self-publishing are obvious. You have complete control over just about every aspect of the book; the edit, design, layout, stock, text. Everything is your decision and that’s what makes it so appealing.
Can you tell us a bit more about how the book came together and the people you worked with on the production?
Once I decided to publish the work it was a surprisingly simple journey. Having seen so many publications over the years, I already had a very basic idea of what I wanted the book look like. I knew what paper I wanted, what size, the basic layout and design and text so it was just a case of putting it all together. I teamed up with a fantastic book designer Daniel Benningworth-Gray and used Pressision Printers in Leeds who have worked extensively with artists of self-published work.
Many photographers we speak to are in a constant state of balancing commercial work with their own self-driven projects, do you find this true of your own work, and if so, how do you achieve that balance?
It can be a delicate balancing act. The nature of self employment and working for commercial clients doesn’t really give you a great deal of time to work on your own projects, and unless you can find something that allows you to dip in and out now and then it can easily become a real challenge. Realistically, I don’t think I could easily take a year out to work on a long-term project so at the moment I tend to work on smaller projects that I can spend a little time on every so often.
Who were you inspired by when you were developing your practice, and are there any contemporary photographers or projects that you admire?
The photographers I admired as a student were people like Bruce Davidson, Lee Friedlander, Robert Capa, Larry Fink, Chris Killip, Tony Ray Jones and Gary Winogrand. I was also especially interested in the work of photographers employed by the FSA (Farm Security Administration) in the U.S who documented the great depression of the 30’s and American rural life, especially during the dustbowl crop failures. Dorethea Lange, Walker Evans. Later on I became interested in colour and especially the work of Paul Graham, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld and William Eggleston.
Lastly, your photographs of British wrestlers taken in the eighties take us right back to big men in tights, World of Sport and braying crowds, are there any plans to publish any of these wonderful pics in the future?
I would love to.... That’s given me a great idea. Watch this space!
The exhibition and book launch will be on the 14th July, so please come along to say hi to Peter, have a beer and look at his amazing work. 'This Land' will then be on display in our event space until the 31st August.